I feel as though this is the most important blog post I have ever written. I say this because I have never been so determined to reach other cancer survivors with this news, this blessing- that yes, cancer is a shitshow, but no, it does not define or confine you. I am only beginning to truly realise the latter and undertaking a trip of a lifetime has helped me believe this. I am really struggling with this blog post. It is because my brain doesn’t have the capacity to put into words how amazing my adventure was and how much it helped me; helped my mental strength, confidence, drive for life. I always thought I was good with words, or at least could portray how I was feeling through words but for once I am speechless. This blog post has taken me weeks and multiple attempts. Each attempt goes either one of two ways. A. I look at pictures of the trip to revive my memory but a shot of adrenaline will rush through my body at the very memory of paddling through roaring rapids and I’d have to get up from my seat and expel the energy coursing through my body. Or B. I freeze, stuck on the first sentence, feeling an immense pressure to describe this trip and give people a sense of how it has changed many young lives. I don’t have enough vocabulary to depict the sense of wholeness First Descents provided me.
My journey with First Descents began in summer 2017. I hear a ding on my phone- a message from Denis, a friend originally from Belgium, who lives and breathes kayaking. It was a screenshot from his Instagram feed and a note ‘You should check this out’. Who would ever have know at that moment that those couple of texts shared was in fact the seeds sown for what would be the most life changing, empowering journey of my life. So what exactly is this amazing First Descents I keep harping on about?
The First Descent journey began with Brad Ludden in 2001 when he took a group of cancer survivor/ fighters kayaking for the week. The feedback was extraordinary, being told it was the most powerful week for a lot of the cancer survivors. Brad knew there was something special here and it sparked a flame within him to continue creating this empowering environment for people who have experienced something so isolating and brutal and to challenge themselves in new and invigorating ways. “When you’re a young person with cancer, it’s so isolating,” said Ludden, who watched his own aunt battle cancer when she was 38. “All your friends are getting married, having children, starting jobs and living life. Here you are fighting for yours.” Fast forward seventeen years and he has created a complete empire of warmth and acceptance, but yet provides the biggest stage to hold the most monumental battle; the battle within yourself.
So fast forward one year and a few exchanged emails I was on my way across the atlantic to the far side of America to spend a week with complete strangers to do god knows what. When I arrived in baggage claim area 9-10 butterflies rummaged through my stomach. You know that feeling when you are about to go on a date and there are those few seconds before you walk into the pub that you think ‘ahh will I just turn around? This was a bad idea’. I was incredibly nervous. I hadn’t really let myself think too much about what it would be like. I had googled nothing, had no preconceived notions of what to expect. I joked with my family that I was going to join a cult and I wouldn’t be back. They half believed me. I couldn’t turn back. I had a new determination within me. I kept one foot in front of the other and kept walking, occasionally laughing to myself about how I managed to find myself on the pacific west about to undertake this adventure. I was far from the back roads of Wicklow now. Nevermind butterflies, there were tigers rumbling around in there. I spied a few other equally nervous and anticipating participants, looking around them trying to focus on something familiar in the uncertainty and I joined them. Little did I know that I was going to go through a life changing experience with these strangers, to the point that I’d consider them family by the end of the week. How could you possibly go as far as saying family, I hear you ask? I think of FD as an incubator. They provide the perfect environment, nutrients and conditions with the lasting result- learning about yourself and growing more that you thought was ever possible.
Tater Tots, the volunteer photographer, met us at the airport, packed us into one of FD’s comfortable cars and whisked us one hour outside of Portland into raw, intense nature. Tater Tots? What the hell, that’s her name? Ah yeh, Sarah has finally cracked and has run off to join a commune in the woods. Welcome to FD tradition numero uno. We didn’t use our real names. We all had to pick nicknames, or they were picked for us and this is what we’d be called for the week. It was a tradition that began on the very first FD and has continued since. FD are all about quirky traditions which either have you in hysterics, or else evoking feelings you didn’t realise was ever in your possession. So hello, I am forever more to be known as Rocky. How do you do? We drove into the wilderness. We were all so unsure and as nervous as the other. Tot’s multicoloured tutu calmed us, or worried us- we weren’t sure. We didn’t know what we were in for. When we arrived at our accommodation we were welcomed with literal greeting arms. Hugs everywhere. It was obvious from the start that the team in charge were going to make this trip as memorable as possible. Talk about picking people handmade for the job. Easygoing, fun, open, chatty, empathetic people. The conversation flowed, each of us learning a little about each other. It was still quite overwhelming. We were told to make ourselves at home, grab a bed that called to you and get comfortable. That is exactly what it was; a home. A quirky wooden lodge with a personality of its own overlooked Mt. Hood, hidden by green trees with hummingbirds zipping above our heads. The vibes already were incredibly positive. I knew this would be like nothing I had ever experienced in Ireland. From the get go the tone was open, honest, raw and real. A far cry from the ‘It’s grand it’s grand’ Irish attitude that I am so used to. A week with emotionally open Americans.. Awh hell get me outta here. That was my first thought.. Feelings.. I have to share them.. Get me back to my brick walled Irish folk. A couple more car loads arrived and suddenly there we were, a lodge full of eleven participants, all having or had cancer and eight staff ready and willing to bring us on a journey of a lifetime.
We all knew that somehow this week would change our lives but I don’t think any of us knew just how much. I will be completely honest. I felt way in over my head on that first Sunday evening. Firstly I wasn’t used to being around young people in my situation. I am accustomed to feeling quite isolated and alone in my journey. Suddenly I was among other young people who have had similar and yet completely different experiences- but there was that common sense of unity. Secondly, I am not a dweller. In order to survive this thing, mentally anyway, I simply can’t hold onto the horrible situations I have found myself in during the past three years. A tube stuck in there, that stent placed in there, this bag attached here- there are times my body should have just given up, but for whatever reason it hasn’t. It just doesn’t work for me to linger on any of the pain. I have memories of everything my body has tortured through but over the last three years I have learnt to move on. A coping mechanism I am sure. Oh all the psychotherapists will be rearing to get at me. So to be plunged deep into a world of hearing about other people’s painful experiences and the horrific shite they had to go through too was pretty tough to hear. That first evening I wanted to run away. I felt so overwhelmed in the honesty and vulnerability of the environment. I wanted to run away from cancer and not dive straight into it. Looking back though, we needed to have that day. It was the seed needed for friendships to blossom. After the ‘what cancer had you?’.. ‘No way I was on that drug too. Did it make your skin turn green?’ pleasantries, the real fun began. The laughter, jokes that only cancer patients can get away with finally ensued. This was the environment I really thrived in.
It’s time to mention the FD staff and lead team here. I have never met people like these- so full of limitless energy, positive vibes. There were no looks of pity, tiptoeing around us. They did not see us as poor cancer patients. We were just ourselves and it was their job to make us, yes I’m going to say it, “stoked” about the days we were about to spend testing ourselves. Let’s start with Bumblebee and Gem- the two volunteer chefs were in the kitchen non stop making healthy, nutrient dense, tasty amazing meals for us. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert and snacks were placed in front of us everyday. Once one meal was put in front of us, they immediately began planning the next. It was a blessing to have a constant stream of nutrition coming our way. They were so full of life, and had a passion for making sure we were all well fed. Like good irish mammies, but from New York. There was Scrawny- a pro kayaker who works for the military taking veterans on recreational kayaking activities. Farkle Sparkle- probably the coolest guy I have ever met. A kind of honest energy you can’t fake. Master Splinter and Tiep- house Mom and Dad. They never let us wash a dish. Anything we needed at all, they sorted it. I loved waking up in the morning to Tiep who’d already be in the kitchen doing a few jobs- just give him a big old warm hug to start the day. Master Splinter was a miracle worker- who was so chilled but willing to bend over backwards to make your life easier at the same time. Stitch- the volunteer doctor, who was once a participant herself. You would forget she is a doctor. She was so warm and relaxed, hanging out with us, but always had her Mary Poppins bag full of tricks when we needed something. I’ve never hung around with my doctor so that was a new experience. Tots, the volunteer photographer, was such a beautiful addition to the group. Always taking sneaky snaps, capturing us at our most awkward, worst positions. Made for great laughs though.
What did this week include? What made it so amazing? That warmth in your heart, that feeling you can’t quite put your finger on. You don’t realise it’s there until you are doing something menial like making a cup of tea or paddling your way down the Klikitat river, your roars of laughter bouncing back off the volcanic rock. You get this strong sense of being exactly where you are supposed to be in that exact moment. Okay, so, think of it like this. Your diagnosis has limited you in your daily life. You have been warned and told over and over what not to do, what your limitations are. It becomes ingrained into your core. You begin to believe you can’t. Whatever it is, you just can’t. You truly believe it. Then First Descents comes along. It completely blows any notion of ‘I can’t’ out of the water (I absolutely meant that pun). It puts you in your own kayak, in charge of yourself and challenges you to regain that confidence, grit, poise that cancer threatened to squash. What is that saying, you can’t control the waves but you can ride them. Well in my case it was rapids. FD’s whole motto is ‘choose to be challenged’. They challenge you to choose to be challenged. They provide the setting and guidance for you to get out of your comfort zone and attack preconceived ideas of inability. Don’t worry they don’t just throw you into the deep end- kind of. On the first day I was so nervous. I had never been whitewater kayaking. It’s funny thinking back- I actually secretly hoped I wouldn’t tip over and get wet. I can’t believe I actually thought that would be a possibility. Any hopes were completely dashed as the first thing the guides did, before we even got a paddle in our hands was flip us over in order to teach us techniques on how to get out of the kayak if we found ourselves upside down. It’s time to mention the teachers at Wet Planet Whitewater. These people are probably the coolest, most talented, hard working group of people I have ever met. These are people that are living the life- doing what they love and are passionate about every single day. They treated us like actual people- no pity looks, taking it easy on us. They pushed us with a gentle hand but never once make us feel uncomfortable or in over our heads. They were professional at knowing each of our limits and pushing us beyond them. They created an environment for us to flourish.
We had our little routine each day but in saying that we never knew what each day would bring. Stitch led a light yoga/ meditation session each morning at 7.30am. I’d rock in bleary eyes and still half asleep at 7.45am- What has cancer taught me? That I am so not a morning person. After a warm breakfast we packed up all our gear we loaded into the cars and met the Wet Planet guys. A quick dance off would ensue in the car park- seriously, at least one leader would be gyrating on the roof of a car (it was funny one morning when a bus load of school kids was parked in the same carpark- oh the face on the teacher- if looks could kill). It got us pumped and excited for the day. It was such a great example of how positive and negative vibes can dictate your experience, and your day in normal life. In the mornings I’d feel tired, a little cold and not in the humour for anything but the couch but the positive energy was contagious and suddenly I’d be rearing to get into the kayak. After our dance off we’d head to the take out (the place we began kayaking, not the Chinese). I had such a ball with my group. With Otter heading the group, the shenanigans that went on. I wanted to kill him for making me do a left sweep stroke over and over in order to perfect it, but then love him to bits as we all party boated down the rapids and sang the top of our lungs. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for him. He pushed me so much, but I always felt safe when I had him in my company. It was amazing to watch the guys be complete messers and then morph into superhero mode when someone needed a hand. My jaws were sore from laughing. Sometimes I’d fear I was going to topple over I was rocking so much from laughing. There was the time Jax turned her head backwards to slag Otter about something but ended up head first in the water- I thought death by laughter was how it was all going to end. And then the times we’d hold onto each other’s kayaks and just float down the river and tell secrets. We’d eddy out at lunch time, grab our lunches from the big massive coolbox and just chill out, get to know each other a little more by the river side. There was no make up, or looking perfect. My hair was matted, I looked like a drowned rat most of the time but I never stopped smiling. I was completely myself, I couldn’t pretend to be anything else. Each day there was something new, adventurous, scary but exciting all at once. It really tested your confidence. By the end we navigated through grade III rapids. Now I completely flipped over, but I learned to love even that part. Challenges stopped frightening me. I learned to embrace them. It wasn’t the fear of failure that scared me. It was the fear of never trying it in the first place. I don’t think I’ll win any medals for kayaking- but I definitely think I should win something for spending the most time underwater. So that was the physical adrenaline fuelled side but there was also the emotion aspect to FD.
Then there was the emotional aspect that FD created. Being around eleven other young adults who have went through something similar as I have was a completely new experience. Every single one of us were from a different place but we all had this one thing in common. Yes it’s an absolutely shitty thing to have in common but it was incredible the strength I found from knowing I wasn’t all alone in this. Such different people, but yet we were all the same. When we chatted to each other there was an understanding- we were ourselves. I didn’t have to concoct answers to the usual questions I get a lot “So what do you do during the days?” (Well, I’m usually on the toilet seat from 9-12- ya know how it does be. I take 1-2 for lunch and 2-3 for existential anxiety. And then after that I’ll just focus on STAYING ALIVE). And then there was the campfires every evening. I don’t want to give too much away because I am hoping that young Irish adults reading this will have their own chance to go experience this too. But let’s just say there was always tears- whether tears of hysterical laughing or tears of deep sadness. It posed questions that really made you think. No matter what, I always felt as though I was wrapped in a big safe blanket and I didn’t have to pretend. I didn’t have to deliberate my own response in order to comfort those around me.
What did FD teach me? It showed me that I absolutely can. I am still the person I was before cancer struck, and I’d nearly go as far to say I am a better person now because of it. I am strong, capable, a crappy kayaker but I am brave. My first morning out on the water I was terrified. The water seemed so cold. I was so frightened of tipping over that it was affecting my ability to learn and grow as a kayaker. It was holding me back. I was scared of what it’d be like to be thrown into the deep end, head first without knowing what was down there. And it happened anyway. Putting too much pressure on one hip I toppled upside down and spent a couple of seconds completely immersed in water, the kayak on top of me. It freed me. I had faced my fear and came back on top- and in fact I loved the invigorating sensation of plunging into rapid water. From then on I enjoyed every moment of it and I didn’t live in fear for what was about to come, or what I could not control. I knew never again to let my own trepidations stop me from realising the joy that was waiting to be experienced. As terrifying as my experience has been, listening to other stories I have come to believe I am incredibly lucky to live in my little country. As much giving out as we do about the HSE, with good reason at times, anything I have ever needed as part of my treatment and care has been provided without second thought. I have the best doctors and nurses looking after me without the worry of insurance cover, will that drug be covered, can I actually afford to go to hospital? I have an amazing network of family and close friends who are there with me at every step. I have been lucky enough to have such a fantastic support system that my main focus is getting myself healthy without the stresses that some people must endure. Some of the stories I heard are haunting- it showed me that there really is a cost on a life. I came back to Ireland feeling pretty grateful for the level of care I have received.
First Descents helped me realise that I am not alone. I have gained another family. I now have friends that truly understand what it is like to experience a toxic substance course through your body, to sit through a meeting about the dreaded scan result, to lie on a procedure table many times as the scalpels are prepared. As amazing as my family and friends are, there is something a little different about having someone by your side that truly knows what it is you are going through. I learned that I put so much pressure on myself and that I need to stop for a second and give myself the biggest pat on my back from everything I have been through. I now know that it is just the beginning for me.
For more information, you can look up First Descents website https://firstdescents.org/. It is a completely charity based organisation. Bar the flights (grants are available from FD) everything is completely paid for from arrival in the airport to the departure (excluding any little purchases you want to make yourself at any shop stops). There are many other locations and activities to sign up for but I chose Whitewater kayaking on the Hood River, Oregon. I am in the process of fundraising for FD in order to make sure that other young Irish adults have the chance to undertake this adventure https://support.firstdescents.org/fundraiser/1521438